“No man is an island entire to itself” wrote the poet John Donne in the 17th century, and this adage certainly applies to people in active addiction. In fact, addiction is often described as a family disease.
“Addiction is a family disease that stresses the family to the breaking point, impacts the stability of the home, the family's unity, mental health, physical health, finances, and overall family dynamics.”(National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence)
A person in addictive addiction is not only harming himself by using. Invariably, there is highly destructive stress for the spouse or romantic partner, putting the future of the partnership at risk. If children are involved, they will be traumatized by the behavior of the addicted person. It the addicted person is a teenager or young adult, his or her parents will be severely affected.
Feelings of guilt and shame on all sides undermine the family dynamic and dysfunction ensues.
“The alcohol or drug user as well as family members may bend, manipulate and deny reality in their attempt to maintain a family order that they experience as gradually slipping away.” (NCADD)
In order to cope with the addicted spouse, parent or child, family members can develop what is known as codependency. Codependent family members tend to believe that “getting a partner or family member to become sober or drug-free might seem like the one goal which, if achieved, would bring them happiness. But on another level, they might realize they are behaving in a way that enables the addict with whom they live to maintain their addictions,” writes Dr. Daniel Ploskin on PsychCentral.
“Families are, like the addict, caught up in denial, and they usually need outside help,” wrote the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr Robert DuPont.
Unresolved codependency can lead to addiction and other disorders. Other health problems for affected family members often include ulcers, high blood pressure, migraines, respiratory issues and heart problems. Worst of all, if codependent family members become enablers for the addicted person, they perpetuate or exacerbate the situation. Enabling behavior includes “helping out” with money or covering for the addicted person when they get into trouble.
In most cases of drug or alcohol addiction, therapists recommend total and permanent abstinence from all addictive substances to achieve recovery. For codependency, the solution is detachment.
“Paradoxically, the way toward real closeness for families dominated by addiction lies through the neglected door to independence for all of the trapped, pathologically entangled parties,” writes Dr. DuPont in the The Selfish Brain.
The best way to prevent further harm from the entire family unit is to get professional help. The family should be involved in the recovery process early on. Loved ones need to learn how to effectively avoid enabling behavior and codependency to be able to support the recovery of their child or spouse.
“Unlike other diseases, addiction and mental health disorders are not well understood, which is mainly due to the controversial nature of addiction,” says North Bay’s Clinical Director Jeff Barboa.
“Add onto the family unit the volatile nature of addiction and a mix of love, anger and other emotions and you get a sense of loss, and despair like no other,” says Barboa. “But despite all the love in the world, anger and emotional investment that families can give to their suffering loved one, they often only see continuing wrath and despair.”
This can be the foundation for healthy change, though. “A principle such as never giving up on your family needs to inspire the hardest lover ever, to stop the enabling and start the recovery path as a family unit. That way, the addicted person can mirror the family system and begin to get well,” says Barboa.